I arrive in Amman about mid-day. I was fortunate enough to fly business class and slept most of the way. I wake up in time for “snack” completely gas free. My flying neighbor seems content so I must not have offended him too much. However, being from New York City it’s likely to take more to offend him. We exchange pleasantries and de-plane.
I meet up with my colleagues who lead the way through immigration, baggage claim, and customs. Having been there before they know the ropes and I follow along dutifully. The customs line at the airport is similar to any I have seen in the US. Bored government employees behind elevated desks robotically process travelers with no emotion or humor.
What is different is the visa process. You must officially have permission to enter the Kingdom of Jordan. This is granted by way of a visa. Unlike my trip to Russia a few years ago where you must follow an elaborate process to gain permission and a visa, in Jordan you simply stand in line at the visa desk, pay 10 Jordanian Dinars (JDs), get your password stamped with a special mark, then move to the immigration line.
One of my colleagues passes through quickly, timing is everything. Another colleague and I end up in a one of two lines converging on the same desk. “Paperwork Guy” takes your passport with the visa stamp, writes an entry in a ledger, then stacks it up on the edge of the desk that belongs to “Stamp Guy”. The “Stamp Guy” reviews the visa and some information on a computer screen, then, if he is satisfies with what he sees, stamps the passport again.
It was clear by the backup caused by the converging lines that we were going to be awhile. “Stamp Guy” was too slow to keep up. After a few minutes, “Boss Man” comes up behind “Stamp Guy”, surveys the situation, and then begins to berate him for getting behind. After the two minute berating I start to feel sorry for “Stamp Guy”. But, “Boss Man” then picks up a few passports, attempts to say my name and my colleague’s name, and directs us to Window 10. After a few tries we finally understand and make our way out of line.
Not having been to the Middle East before, and having been pulled out of line by name, I become mildly concerned. We make our way to Window 10, which has a sign above it indicating residents only. We exchange confused looks and step up to yet another bored government employee, “Second Stamp Guy”. We hand out passports to “Second Stamp Guy” who spends a little over a nanosecond looking at the documents, stamps our passports and gestures to the exit.
We finally get to baggage claim and twenty minutes later we have our possessions. I expect that customs will be yet another set of lengthy lines, but after we pass by a vaguely official-looking person we find ourselves outside among limos, taxis, and busses. One of my colleagues had arranged for a private driver to take us to Amman. “Driver Guy” is waiting for us when we step outside.
“Driver Guy” is an impeccably dressed man in his fifties with a barrel chest and silver hair. He welcomes us with a very wide smile and beefy handshakes. “Good to see you my friends!” he announces. We pile into the large black sedan and “Driver Guy” zooms off.
Because it is in the middle of the day I get a clear view of the surroundings on the way to the city. For reasons I can only attribute to movies and TV, I expect to see sand, lots and lots of sand, and maybe a camel or two. Amman is in the desert you know. Instead I see rolling hills, bluffs, farm land and green grass. When I mention this, “Driver Guy” tells me about all the rain they have received lately. My colleagues are surprised by the green too because they tell me the last few times they were here it was brown. Still, no sand and no camels.
When we get to Amman I begin to recognize things that my imagination had conjured up prior to my trip. I see lots of white stone buildings and houses. They are exactly as I have seen on TV. The streets are windy, the traffic brisk, and the respect for traffic lanes, pedestrians, and turn signals non existent. As in other metropolitan cities around the world the car horn is used as a communication device between drivers – “Go ahead”, “Watch it”, “You’re an idiot!” etc etc.
We pull up to the driveway of the Marriott Hotel and stop at the iron gates. Security guards speak rapidly to “Driver Guy” in Arabic, he opens the trunk for inspection and a second security guard inspects under the car with a mirror attached to a long pole. I look over to the side and notice a soldier pacing nearby armed with a machine gun. There are two ways to take this, security is good, and the need for this level security is bad. I take it both ways. The whole process takes five seconds and we are allowed to enter. I realized then that it was simply routine. After a couple of days, and a few more inspections, I don’t even notice the machine gun any more.
The hotel is gorgeous. But before we can enter we must pass through another security check point. No machine guns, but a metal detector and x-ray machine makes me think of airport security. Again, security is good, right? It turns out even if you don’t have any metal in your pockets you set off the alarm. “Wand Guy” waves a hand-held metal detector up and down your body, carefully pats you down, smiles with kind eyes, and then let’s you pass. After a few of these searches I learn this is also just routine. I eventually end up taking some level of comfort in the ritual.
Since this is an American hotel, everything is in English, including the language of the hotel staff. They are impeccably dressed and intense on helping you feel comfortable. I say “intense”, and not “intent”. “Intent” is what you get at a Marriott in the U.S.. “Intense is what you get in the Middle East. It’s as if they work on commission, somehow able to monitor your level of satisfaction and get paid accordingly.
As an American property they also have an American-sounding sports bar called Champions. It has, as you might expect, big screen TVs, a bar, a bunch of tables, plenty of beer and booze, and of course, very intense waiters. The only thing different than an American sports bar is what’s on TV, English Premier League soccer. So, perhaps it’s more like an English sports bar. But, I have never been to England so I can’t really compare.
This first night in Amman though we forego Champions in favor of local color. My colleagues recommend a restaurant they have been to before that has great food and is in a hip part of Amman. Yes, Amman can be very hip indeed, but more on that later.
We hail a taxi to take us to a Chinese/Indian fusion restaurant. “Cab Driver” doesn’t understand what we are trying to tell him, but he does understand “Fitness Center” which is a health club close to the restaurant. He recognizes this because that’s the name of the club. Once at the fitness Center we guide “Cab Driver” to the restaurant. The meter in the cab reads 840. We pay him 10 JDs. He is very, very happy. We later learn why he was so happy. More on lessons on currency in another post.
The restaurant is clean, comfortable, and new. One side of the menu has typical Chinese options, Kung Pao Chicken, fried dumplings, etc. The reverse side has India options like Chicken Curry. The food was great and the service was friendly, and, of course, intense. I feel a bit disappointed in myself for not going native this first time out, but I figure I will be here for a week so there is plenty of opportunity for local cuisine.
After dinner we have a night cap at Champions – a round of Amstels and head off to bed. I check in with family to let them know I survived the trip, do about an hour’s worth of work to prepare for the big first day, pop an Ambien and hit the rack. From my bed I call the front desk to order a wake up call. “Front Desk Guy” greets me by name and an intense “Good Morning! How can I help you?”
So far I have observed the following:
1. Security is a priority
2. Customer service is paramount
3. Chicken Curry is my favorite Indian dish
4. People drive like idiots
5. Government employees are bored and slow.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.